Cuba on Two Wheels

By Michael Shapiro
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 8, 2001


On a bicycle-tour packing list that included bike shorts, sunscreen, energy bars and patch kits, a baseball was the one item missing. Because when I came upon those barefoot kids in eastern Cuba playing with a ball made of rolled-up tape and they asked if I had a real ball, I would have happily traded my patch kit, my Clif bars, even my spare tube for a baseball to give them.

But all I could do was apologize in broken Spanish and offer them American dollars, which, as there was no place nearby to buy baseballs, they politely declined. Though disappointed for a moment, their enthusiasm reignited when I asked to take their picture. They clambered atop a manual scoreboard, and several poked their faces through the little windows used to display the score.

The poignant encounter was among the many I had with locals during a two-week, 400-mile bike tour of the island's eastern provinces. The trip was led by the Cuban cycling club Atenas de Cuba, which works to promote people-to-people connections, and arranged through Seattle's International Bicycle Fund. Our eight-person, all-American group -- including a law professor, caterer, tech-support wizard and a self-described "bean counter" -- ranged in age from 28 to 60 (and it was the 60-year-old who often rode into camp first).

We began with a quick circuit around Havana, where we took in the capital's crumbling colonial architecture, our spirits soaring as we spotted one vintage American car after another. I silently thanked the history gods for bringing Fidel Castro to power in 1959 rather than 1979, shuddering at the prospect of Havana's streets littered with Pintos and Pacers.

But this isn't a story about faded colonial buildings or classic cars. Those tales have been told. It's simply an account of a bicycle tour, beginning with a sea-sprayed ride along the Malecon, Havana's renowned seaside promenade, and coursing through the island's eastern provinces. It's a tale of being serenaded by a salsa band during an impromptu concert under the stars; encountering confounding contradictions, like having our Cuban guide barred from our tourists-only hotel; and riding along deserted coastal roads past mountains that tumble into the sea.

A Day in Havana

Our group was welcomed to Havana by our guide, Pedro, who faintly resembles a Latin Bruce Willis. Pedro, who speaks English fluently, shepherded us into a waiting van and drove us to a stately three-story colonial home in Havana's Vedado district. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union brought hard times to Cuba, many families have turned to renting out spare rooms. We stayed with the Morales family, whose warm welcome, generous spirit and sumptuous meals more than made up for the home's slight disrepair.

As Pedro handed out cigars, cyclists who'd brought their own bikes assembled them in the driveway. My fiancee and I instead inspected the group's rental bikes -- most were in fine shape, so we picked out a couple and test-rode them around the block.

Our day-long bike tour of the capital wound past Revolution Square, where a sculpture of Che Guevara's legendary visage clings to the Interior Ministry building, peering over the sprawling concrete plaza. At Cathedral Square, near the Malecon, a carnival was in full throttle as stilt-supported, face-painted entertainers towered over tourists, seeking donations. I gave a quarter to a young woman, apologizing that my wallet was packed away. She smiled and said, "Don't worry, this has value here."

On the other side of the square, a 10-piece band played "Chan Chan," the theme song from "Buena Vista Social Club." It was a tune I would hear almost every day for two weeks.

The next morning, we embarked on a 12-hour van ride to eastern Cuba, with heart-stopping views of sugar cane and tobacco fields at sunset and frequent stops for gas and permits. In tiny Jatibonico, we tried to find a place to eat, but no restaurants could serve us, probably due to the limited supplies of food in small Cuban towns. Somehow a family rounded up enough ham, rice, tomato salad and beer for our group, cooking our dinner over a wood stove inside a small cluttered kitchen. The cost: $5 each.

Up the street, a horse and buggy clip-clopped past a store selling TVs and Scotch to the few wealthy Cubans with American cash.

CONTINUED     1              >

© 2001 The Washington Post Company